How to get around the cabbage smell while cooking it

Cabbage is more sweet, less odoriferous, right now.|

Even though it’s available in our stores year-round, cabbage is best in late winter and early spring. That’s when it’s at its mildest and sweetest.

That flavor lets it pair well with sweet and smoked meats, especially sugar-cured ham and bacon, but also sausage, pork loin, duck and corned beef. For condiments, horseradish, mustard, juniper berries and vinegar match up with cabbage’s distinct flavor. Cabbage also makes a fine pairing with apples, leeks, parsley, potatoes, spinach and, especially, onions.

But how do you handle cabbage so it doesn’t develop that unpleasant reek of overcooked cabbage? Here’s what you need to know:

Cabbage and onions contain sulfur-based compounds and enzymes that are kept apart — and nonreactive — in separate cells when the plants are whole. But when you cut the vegetables, the compounds and enzymes mix, creating pungent, bitter and foul-smelling compounds that repel insects (and people!). These are the compounds that make you cry when you slice onions and make cabbage smell repulsive when cooked for too long.

This defensive system is twice as strong in the young, growing tissues of cabbage hearts as it is in the outer leaves. Summer’s heat and drought increase these chemicals, while the cold, moist soil and dim light of winter and early spring — like we have in April — reduce them. That’s why cabbage is at its choicest right now.

Your kitchen techniques also affect the plant’s defenses. Chopping cabbage finely, as for coleslaw, greatly increases the release of pungent and bitter compounds and the enzymes that activate them. After chopping, you can plunge the cabbage into a pot of ice water, which rinses away many of these compounds. This also plumps and crisps the leaves and keeps the shredded cabbage cold.

If you like cabbage fermented into sauerkraut and kimchi, be aware that the fermentation process greatly reduces the bitter and stinky chemicals released by chopping.

If you want to serve cabbage wedges as a side dish with dinner (corned beef and cabbage, anyone?), heat a large pot of water on the stove on high heat. As it begins to steam, add the wedges. As it approaches the boiling point, the enzymes will be inactivated, so no more pungent, bitter compounds will form. Cook only until the cabbage is tender, but no longer. The hot water will leach a lot of the unwanted compounds from the cabbage, making it taste milder than either stir-frying or steaming.

Prolonged cooking turns the sulfurous compounds into trisulfides — noxious-smelling compounds that have a tendency to linger in the kitchen.

If your tap water is alkaline, red cabbage will react to it by turning a bluish color. Vinegar, apples and wine are all acidic, and by adding one or more of them to the cooking water, you can avoid unwanted color changes.

The ancient Greeks claimed cabbage sprang from Zeus’ sweat, a story that may stem from cabbage’s strong odor when overcooked. Another Greek saying about cabbage is that “cabbage served twice is death.” That is a hyperbolic warning that cabbage doesn’t make very good leftovers, which it doesn’t.

Hazel Hardebeck’s coleslaw was always the best. The dear girl hailed from Covington, Kentucky, and showed her German heritage in this dish. I looked for years until I found the exact same slaw she made; this version comes from Carlos at Nicola’s Delicatessen in Calistoga. Hazel (my mom) would have approved. This recipe makes a quart of coleslaw dressing, enough for two batches of slaw.

Midwestern Sweet and Sour Coleslaw

Makes 4 servings

1 head of savoy cabbage

½ carrot, peeled and grated

¼ red bell pepper

3 cups egg mayonnaise

1 teaspoon celery seed

1 cup white vinegar

1 cup sugar

Remove the coarse outer leaves of the savoy cabbage and cut the head in half. Cover and refrigerate half the head for tomorrow night. Core the other half and slice it as thin as you possibly can, using a mandoline if you have one.

Place the sliced cabbage in a large bowl of ice water (with ice cubes) for 1 hour. Drain the cabbage and pat dry between dish towels.

Place the cabbage in a large bowl and add half a peeled, grated carrot and a quarter of a red bell pepper, seeded and minced.

In a separate bowl combine the mayonnaise, celery seed, vinegar and sugar and mix until the sugar is dissolved. For the sugar, add it a bit at a time and taste. It’s right when it becomes an integrated flavor.

Use half the mayo mix to dress the cabbage-carrot-pepper veggies and reserve the rest for the next batch. It will last in the fridge, covered, for a week. Toss to mix thoroughly. Serve immediately.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food writer. Reach him at

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